You can’t libel a dead man, they say, but you sure can tick off his relatives when you make some bad assumptions and get some significant facts wrong. I found that out the other day when I got some negative feedback on a column I had written nearly 11 years ago. But the good news is that the story has a happy ending, and one minor point in the historical record of Albert Einstein’s life in Princeton can be now be clarified.
Here’s the background.
Back in June of 2002, as Princeton officials were discussing ways in which to memorialize Einstein’s 22-year residency in Princeton, I wrote a column recounting some of the legendary interactions Einstein had with ordinary, work-a-day Princeton residents.
One such meeting was described in Denis Brian’s 1996 biography, “Einstein: A Life,” involving a 15-year-old Princeton High School student who had been challenged in 1935 by his journalism teacher at Princeton High School: If he could obtain an interview with Einstein, the story went, he would get an A in the course. The student, Henry Rosso, found out the route Einstein took from his home to his office. At first Einstein declined, but Rosso convinced him to do the interview, arguing that no real reporters would read the student paper (it was later picked up by the Associated Press — even then it was hard to keep a lid on certain stories).
But Rosso was so intent on getting the interview that he had failed to prepare any questions. Einstein patiently suggested some.
What the author, a writer based in Rockport, MA, either did not realize (or did not think was important) was what I knew (or thought I knew) about that student. Henry Rosso, I knew for a fact, was the owner of Rosso’s Cafe on Spring Street, a workingman’s bar until he sold it in the 1980s and it eventually became the home of Chuck’s chicken wings, run briefly by the infamous brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez. In my early days of freelance writing, Rosso’s was my social club. Later I moved around the corner from the house where Henry lived with his sister, Rose.
Most remarkable to me about this piece of Einstein ephemera (also reported by Walter Isaacson in his 2007 book, “Einstein: His Life and Universe”) is that in all the hours I wiled away at Rosso’s Cafe, and all the heart-rending, soul searching, and ego-building banter served up with the shots and beers and pickled eggs, I never heard Rosso make a single reference to his encounter with the greatest mind of our time. My conclusion: For people growing up in Princeton in the 1930s, Einstein was just another part of the landscape. Of course he took time to help out; he helped out everyone.
That was then. Last week I got a blunt E-mail:
“It was just brought to my attention an article you wrote about an alleged conversation you had with Henry Rosso regarding his interview with Dr. Albert Einstein. In this article you make the fictitious comment he owned the Rosso Cafe and shared a conversation with you regarding his interview with Dr. Einstein. Let me set you straight — never happened.
“Henry Rosso interviewed Dr. Einstein for an extra credit assignment in high school. After numerous attempts to get an interview Dad jumped over the fence [the family version of the story differs with the ones recorded by the biographers, who reported no such fence jumping] and subsequently impressed the great doctor with his tenacity.
“In 1959 we moved to San Francisco, California. I can guarantee you we never owned a Rosso Cafe and I absolutely know you and Dad never had a conversation.
“The Rosso Family and the name of Henry Rosso is not something to be used by others for false marketing purposes. My father was an honorable man, known worldwide for his fund raising expertise.
“Sincerely, Susan Rosso Page”
Ouch. In a response to Susan Page, I pushed back a little (I never did write that Rosso and I had discussed the Einstein incident). But mostly I asked for some help: Could it be that the quiet little town of Princeton in the 1930s had not one but two teenaged boys named Henry Rosso running around?
That seems to be the case. Susan Page’s father was born in 1918 and would have been around 17 at the time of the student newspaper interview. My old friend Henry Rosso was born October 3, 1920, and would have been 14 or 15 in 1935. But maybe the Einstein biographers both had the age wrong.
The name Henry Rosso, most certainly Susan’s father and not my neighborhood saloon-keeper, surfaced again several years later in a little known newspaper, the Local Express, launched in 1935 and in 1938 renamed the Princeton News. Copies of the paper, uncovered by the staff at the Princeton University Library while reorganizing some stacks, show that an early partner dropped out after the first issue and Henry Rosso became the editor.
Susan’s father served as a paratrooper with the Army in World War II and graduated from Syracuse University in 1949. As a fundraiser he helped arrange the first Mother’s March on Polio, later known as the March of Dimes. He later participated in campaigns for the United Way, the Boy Scouts, and Planned Parenthood, among many other public service agencies. In a 1979 interview, Rosso said that fund raising “isn’t a simple process of begging — it’s a process of transferring the importance of the project to the donor.”
The best part of the interaction with Rosso’s daughter was learning that the family has in its possession, as Susan says in an E-mail, “the original copy of his interview with Dr. Einstein along with the fine doctor’s editorial comments. Each of us now have a preserved copy in our possession.”
My mind immediately flashed to the collection of Einstein memorabilia on display at Landau’s store on Nassau Street. If Landau doesn’t already have this gem — an example of Einstein, the editor! — it certainly should. I won’t beg the daughter for a copy, of course, but I will try to impress upon her the importance of the collection. If he were around today, Henry Rosso would be able to give me a few pointers.